Can Geoengineering Save The World?

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To his colleagues, Crutzen's willingness to consider deliberate intervention with the planet's climate is a sign that the debate over global warming has changed. "Here is a guy who knows more about the Earth's atmosphere than anyone else alive, and he's telling us that the situation is so dire we need to think about intervening with the atmosphere on a planetary scale," one climate scientist told me. "That's frightening, of course – but from a purely scientific point of view, it's also very interesting."

Until recently, discussion of geoengineering – intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth's climate – has been taboo among scientists. The pursuit is widely seen as not only a dangerous distraction from the serious business of figuring out how to cut emissions but also as borderline immoral. Lester Brown, one of the godfathers of the environmental movement and president of the Earth Policy Institute, sees geoengineering as "another step down the road of actively managing the planet - something we've already proven we're not terribly good at. The whole idea of geoengineering is based on an assumption that we know how this all works, when in truth we haven't a clue." Burton Richter, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, also dismisses the idea, arguing that "piling one un-understood problem on top of another un-understood problem is not very smart." The point was driven home a few months ago when Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a supporter of geoengineering, attended a meeting with Al Gore and suggested erecting a giant sun shade in outer space to cool the planet.

"Gore looked at me like I was crazy," Brand recalls. "He snapped, 'Right, Brand. Let's do an experiment with the entire planet.'"

But of course, we're already running an experiment with the entire planet – it's called civilization. To keep this civilization going, we dump billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, the impact of which we're just beginning to understand. "In effect, we're already engineering the climate," says Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford who collaborated with Wood on the "Save the Arctic" proposal. "We just don't want to admit it. You can argue that the only real difference between what we're doing today and what geoengineering advocates are proposing is a matter of intention. And frankly, the atmosphere doesn't care about what's going on in our heads."

Many scientists who support the idea of actively managing the Earth's climate believe that it's simply too late to rely on a more gradual approach to global warming. James Lovelock, who coined the Gaia hypothesis of the planet as a single living organism in the 1960s, compares geoengineering to chemotherapy. "There is only a small chance to save the patient, but we have to try it," Lovelock says. "It is a survival strategy, a leaky lifeboat."

Wood, whom Lovelock praises as a "man of great invention," understands how ethically fraught his idea is, and how it raises anew a fundamental question about our relationship with the world we live in – are we the caretakers of the Earth, or the masters of it? Indeed, the very subversiveness of geoengineering may be one reason why Wood champions it. "Lowell enjoys playing the role of Dr. Evil," says Caldeira, whose own politics are solidly enviro-lefty. "But he also happens to be brilliant. And he's one of the few people I know who is thinking about the nuts and bolts of how to actually manage the Earth's climate. I don't really think of him as a scientist – he's a planetary engineer."

Lowell Wood was a rocket boy, a child of the American West's postwar optimism. The son of a real estate investor, he grew up in the suburb of Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles, just as the old walnut ranches were being bulldozed to make way for tract homes and the air was filled with sonic booms from military jets. He devoured books about rocketry and space exploration, such as Willy Ley's classic Conquest of the Moon. For Wood, it was not a distant dream. Nearby was the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a government facility where the engines that powered the Apollo rockets were tested and the famous German rocketeer Werner von Braun sometimes worked. "Boys are seemingly 'doomed' by their Y chromosomes to be hikers and climbers and explorers," Wood says, "so I not infrequently hiked a few miles to watch the big rocket engines test-fired." After high school, he majored in math and chemistry at UCLA, where he met the man who would change his life: Edward Teller.

Teller, who fled his native Hungary as a young man to escape the Nazis, helped build the first hydrogen bomb and co-founded the Lawrence Livermore lab. With enormous dark eyebrows, a prosthetic foot and an unshakable belief in the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire, Teller was one of the most influential scientists of the nuclear age – and an inspiration for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film. Teller was impressed enough by Wood to invite him to join the Livermore lab. At first, Wood explored nuclear fission and supernova astrophysics; by the early 1970s, he was hard at work designing nuclear weaponry.

In their partnership, Teller was the big-picture guy, Wood the detail man. "Lowell is a much better engineer than Teller was," says Freeman Dyson, a physicist who knew both men well. "Teller loved big ideas but was not so interested in how to actually implement them." But as the Cold War cranked up and fear of mushroom clouds shadowed the world, both men became symbols of the unholy marriage of science and war. In 1971, torch-carrying antiwar protesters in Berkeley marched on Teller's home and threatened to burn him alive. Wood found death threats pinned to the gate of his home.

To Teller, nuclear bombs were not just instruments of war but tools of progress. He embarked on "Project Plowshare," a perverse scheme to promote the use of nukes to excavate harbors, canals and mines. ("We will change the Earth's surface to suit us," Teller proclaimed.) Despite the idea's insanity, he nearly gained approval to use five nuclear bombs to dig a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska, until the plans were halted by an international outcry. Teller even proposed setting off a nuclear blast several hundred feet beneath the surface of the moon, predicting that it would unleash a great fountain of water and enable humanity to colonize the lunar surface.

But the fullest expression of Teller's apocalyptic vision came in the 1980s, when he and Wood developed the idea of nuke-powered X-ray lasers in space that could vaporize Soviet missiles before they reached the U.S. It was a fantastically costly and complex scheme, but Teller managed to sell it to President Reagan, who was eager to fund anything that might rattle the Soviets. Officially dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative but known to everyone as Star Wars, the project became the centerpiece of Reagan's defense policy. Billions of dollars in research money flowed to Livermore – much of it to support the "O Group," a ragtag bunch of Berkeley and Stanford grads assembled by Wood to build the X-ray laser.

Members of the O Group worked insane hours, fueled mostly by soft drinks and ice cream, driven by a sense of mission and pride in the fact that they were the smartest weapons builders on the planet. Richard Gabriel, a software-industry pioneer who worked at the lab in the early 1980s, recalls that one team member kept two maps above his desk – one of the Soviet Union and one of the moon – labeled "before" and "after." Some of the scientists carried weapons in their cars to protect them from the KGB. In their rare moments of free time, the group would hang out at the enormous log home that Wood had built by hand in the hills above the lab, where they'd goof off by cranking open a gas line that ran through the property and lighting it, creating a thirty-foot-high tower of fire.

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